Sexism at Work: It's just below the surface...

“I was performing extremely well in my firm and as a result took on the functions of a Director. However, I was told I had to ‘prove myself’ before the directorship was formalised and a pay rise given. There was no justifiable reason for this; I had outperformed all colleagues in my department. Shortly afterwards another Director was appointed (formally) on over double my salary without a requirement to ‘prove himself’. To this day I am paid substantially less than all male Directors at my firm.”
So says Emma, a City Worker in response to calls for evidence of Sexism in the City, the excellent Fawcett Society’s new campaign.

I worked in the City for much of my career and as I have mentioned in posts before, sexism is rife. It is as they say in the new campaign..just below the surface. But it’s also pretty prevalent in legal firms, in FMCG firms and other industries that I have worked in. I know that I have at times earnt less than male colleagues and I have lost out on jobs because I am a woman in her mid thirties who is deemed bound to have children at some point in the next couple of years.

Whenever I challenge the day to day low level sexism that exist in my current client’s office: from a group of men scoring the various women in other departments out of 10 based on their relative fuckability to the request of the MD to get more good looking women from the company at an industry function dinner to ‘entertain’ clients to the use of the word ‘woman’ as a synonym for the word ‘crap’, then I am made to feel like a killjoy and unable to take a joke.

It is not harmless fun. It impacts on women’s pay packets (and therefore on the number of children in poverty) and it impacts on women’s ability to follow their careers and dreams. Sexism like I’ve related above also sanitises more sinister occurrences; where, for example, men in positions of power are able to abuse women emotionally and sexually. Even if they don’t get their way, women are often too fearful of the consequences of whistle blowing, on their own career and reputation to do anything other than move on and keep quiet: after all, who wants to highlight how they can become a victim a sexual predator?

Whether you are a woman and or you have friends or partners who are women or are concerned for your sisters or daughters, the fact that sexism at work lurks so close to the surface should be of concern to us all. It doesn’t just happen in some mythical other place or society, it is happening all around us here in the UK in the 21st century.

So please, can I encourage you to pop along to the Sexism at Work website down load a poster to put up in your office or send an eCard to a friend. Sexism shouldn’t just be something that is always going to be there, we can get rid of it but only if we admit it’s there in the first place!


thomas said...
6 Oct 2008, 16:44:00

Prejudice on any grounds shouldn't be tolerated, but at the same time any approach which attempts to humiliate the perpetrators is only perpetuating the vicious circle and further entrenching a 'divide and rule' mentality.

Isn't it a more effective approach (and more liberal too) to try to take advantage of the freedoms and flexibility offered by the market in situations like these?

Where a person feels undervalued or discriminated against to the extent that a complaint is forthcoming I can't understand that the workplace environment for that employer would be tolerable. Surely it makes sense to be flexible and move company to a placement which is a better fit.

The best punishment for offenders of this sort is for them to lose their underappreciated talent and for a severe crimp to be put in their skills base. If this also has the subsequent effect of damaging their reputation and business then the moral is that the crime didn't pay off - it makes sense that hard-nosed business minds will be most convinced by a solid business case.

Such market-based morality is far more effective at instigating progressive change than simple moralising (although intervening to highlight cause and effect relationships will also pay secondary dividends).

Nevertheless I worry that the one-handed politics of initiatives of this sort may frustrate any final satisfaction even if the ends are laudable - it must also be demonstrated that the means are complementary.

Jennie said...
6 Oct 2008, 18:01:00

/at the risk of sounding ranty...

Thomas, when you have a family to support, you can't just LEAVE a job until you know you've got another one lined up, and when you work full time for minimum wage, the idea of jobhunting and getting another job that might not be any better is not what you want to spend you small amounts of free time doing.

Do try not to make it sound like it's a piece of piss to just get another job when it's patently not: it sounds awfully like victim-blaming to me: "if you're getting sexually harrassed and you don't move jobs, IT'S YOUR OWN FAULT, STUPID WOMEN!"

Does it occur to you that even if women were to follow your unworkable suggestion, all that would happen would be that the perpetrator would employ ANOTHER woman and harrass her instead?

thomas said...
6 Oct 2008, 18:29:00

jennie, that's not what I said and I thought I did account for the problem you raise (even if it wasn't explicitly enough for you).

The labour market should be flexible enough to take advantage of, and in addition my guess is that working mothers on the minimum wage are not usually expecting to jump to director level with a doubling of wage overnight (for another, I can't imagine many directors settling for twice minimum wage).

So let's not get overexcited when comparing apples with brazil nuts, eh?

This is not to say discrimination isn't felt all down the food chain, but that it is much easier to identify closer to the top of the scale and the simple remunerative difference makes recourse to complaints procedures much more worthwhile - how often is it easier for those at the bottom to be allowed to sink without trace or feel more pressured into holding off from making a complaint because their position is more tenuous?

From my own experience these days most people feel insecure enough about our long-term employment futures to have half an eye on our next line of opportunity anyway.

Finally, jennie, I'd like to point out that what I've said is equally applicable to both men and women (even though we both know the reality is most often one-sided).

I get the feeling you may have taken some of my comment personally, or as a carry-over from other discussions, for which I hope you'll accept my apology.

ginasketch said...
6 Oct 2008, 18:37:00

"Prejudice on any grounds shouldn't be tolerated, but at the same time any approach which attempts to humiliate the perpetrators is only perpetuating the vicious circle and further entrenching a 'divide and rule' mentality."

Yes, Thomas. The poor widdle menz with their being called on assholish behaviour.

It's so comparable to a woman being bullied and sexually threatened in the workplace by someone who will likely have more priviledge than her.

But silly me, that's sexism isn't it, pointing out reality?

thomas said...
6 Oct 2008, 19:56:00

Gina, you're obviously not sympathetic to men who've been harrassed by women in positions of privilege. I accept it's rarer, but I don't accept it's non-existent.

I think you are only seeing half the story and in doing so are only advocating half the correct answer.

ginasketch said...
6 Oct 2008, 22:23:00

Dear Thomas,

This article is not about that and you still do not get it.

Now please put away your copy of Disclosure and grow up.

Anonymous said...
7 Oct 2008, 04:58:00

Hi Thomas.

In an ideal market, with perfect information and fluidity, you would be correct. Over time, harrassers would lose on human capital, become inefficient and unprofitable relative to non-harrassers.

However, as Jennie points out, the labor market is neither ideal nor perfectly fluid. There are significant costs associated with looking for and finding another job. Therefore the capitalism argument simply doesn't wash.

Jo Christie-Smith said...
7 Oct 2008, 09:24:00

Yes, Thomas, my response now that I have got around to it (sorry I went to a meeting more or less straight after I posted the post)was the same as tinuvielberen's.

Theoretically you would think a flood of valuable resources leaving would make companies think again before tolerating sexism and discrimination in the work place as they do but it is not a perfect market without perfect knowledge.

If econminc common snese was able to prevail of prejudice it would all have been sorted by now - but it's not.

The market isn't enough in this case, you need a cultural change first, so that those in power actually recognize that sexism in the workplace exists.

Most people base their view on how the world is on their own experience. As most people at the top of organisations are men, then chances are that they won't have experienced sexism or it's impacts.

thomas said...
7 Oct 2008, 11:44:00

Yes, Jo, but forgive me if it seems like I'm being controversial, I don't see how the two sides of the approach can be separated.

Nobody who partakes of offensive behaviour will change their natural inclination unless the argument - that the offense is against their best interests BECAUSE it is against all our interests - is won.

If this argument isn't won then intervention and punitive action will continue to be necessary BECAUSE prejudicial behaviour will still be giving rise to undesirable situations.

I disagree strongly with ginasketch because I think drawing true comparisons is an effective way of including men in the movement against sexism, just as it is important to include people of all colours and backgrounds in the fight against racism: if anti-sexism becomes a female-only cause it will fail (on a basic majoritarian count, if nothing more exacting).

So it must be necessary in admitting the weaknesses of the market to say that there are necessary measure which can be taken in this area to the benefit of the cause - and this must be the other half of the longer-term liberal agenda to lift restrictions on the ability to take opportunities and develop individual potentials.

Therefore while I recognise and agree with the good work the Fawcett Society is doing, I feel unable to support it until it begins to acknowledge the comprehensive approach necessary to make a real difference.

And this applies also to the LibDems (though I think you are starting to take some positive steps in this direction).

gina said...
7 Oct 2008, 15:03:00

Your first mistake is thinking that I think sexism should be a woman only cause.

Your other mistake is just plain willful ignorance with regards to not being able to admit that-like it or not- men hold most of the privilege and power in society.

How man-hatingly sexist of me to point that out.

Jo Christie-Smith said...
7 Oct 2008, 15:18:00


You say:

"Nobody who partakes of offensive behaviour will change their natural inclination unless the argument - that the offence is against their best interests BECAUSE it is against all our interests - is won".

No, I don't think that is always the case. Some people will stop offensive behaviour because they see it is in the best interests of everyone but many, many people won't see the link. they won't see that being less sexist is going to improve their lives.

There are other ways of inducing cultural change...messages sent out from the top and from peers that certain behaviour is unacceptable can short cut the need for each individual to come to the conclusion personally that being sexist is not in their best interests. A good example of this is the cultural change that came about with regards to drink driving.

The Fawcett Society campaign is attempting to do this - excerpt peer pressure and pressure from opinion formers and leaders that it is not OK be be sexist in the work place. Peer pressure is just as powerful as your very intellectual process of everybody coming to individual conclusions based on what is in their own personal best interests.

A process which can be proved every day in every betting shop, just for example, all over the world that people don't follow.

thomas said...
7 Oct 2008, 16:33:00

I didn't accuse you of sexism, so if you understood my comments in that way I suggest you are projecting an interpretation which wasn't intended. Why would you do that?

If you could be helpful enough to point out where I made any assumptions I'd be most grateful.

I'm in agreement with you there, but I'd rather eradicate prejudice rather than just reduce it. So if reducing it creates the impression that we're doing enough then I think we'd be guilty of fooling ourselves into complacency when we could be doing more.

Therefore I'd restate my position that this is a good and necessary step which I'm in agreement with, but because it isn't good enough I'm not prepared to surrender my independence, yet, although I'm happy to make positive noises and continue this dialogue in the hope of advancing our shared concerns.

On the subject of changing culture, I also agree that many people will be influenced into conformity with their peers, but it isn't sustainable to believe that this will bring about lasting change unless we do win the argument in the long run - and we can only win the argument BY drawing the link.

In which case may I ask if there are any organisations with which the Fawcett Society could ally with in order to promote such a dual-pronged approach? I think a collaborative effort would do much to assuage people like me to to be more active on this important matter and in so doing I think the campaign would grow to be more successful.

On a side note, I have an inherent distaste for using conservative methods (promoting conformity!) to achieve liberal ends. That this can be temporarily successful perhaps offers a commentary on the state of our society and the current culture of short-term solutions.

Janie said...
18 Aug 2011, 19:46:00

If you think sexism is bad where you are just go to work for State or Federal Government, I have a boss that is rally bad and denies that he is although its apparent to most everyone. He did get a female boss over him however she was just as bad in the reverse. He did however stop the behavior even though he denied he was but when she was asked to retire he has started it back I would like someone give me suggestions as to the best way to handle this problem.

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